The Personal Memoirs Of Charlie Westwick, born 1879, The Oldest Gillingham Supporter In The World. (As told to his grandson)
1895 to 1900
I had discovered the story behind the train warrant to Caversham that Grandad had carefully kept in his treasure chest of football memories. It proved that our intensity of feelings against Swindon was not a modern phenomena, burnt into folklore by the infamous clashes in 1979 and the play-off trilogy in 1987. In fact, 1987 was a re-run of 1895, and we had even played Swindon twice in our first ever season, beating them 2-1 at home in February 1894, and losing 2-0 away the following month. They are the only club from 1893/94 who have been regular opponents of ours over the century since, which must make them pretty much our oldest rivals.
The Southern League which New Brompton joined for the 1895/96 season contained ten clubs, and there were the names of some modern day Football League clubs in it – Luton Town, Millwall Athletic, Reading, Southampton St Mary’s and Clapton (later Leyton) Orient. Ilford and Royal Ordinance Factories had survived from earlier times, as had Swindon Town. Despite being thrashed in the Test Match, they had got re-promoted due to the League electing several new clubs. Grandad and his mates were relishing games against much stiffer opposition, but one club’s name leapt out from the fixture list.
“Chatham. They’d been around longer than us, and thought they were the biggest club in Kent. They delighted in annoying us by always referring to us as “The Colonials” – the nickname we disliked. And what’s more SunBoy we were home to them on the opening day of the season. The rivalry between the two towns had been building up for years. Brompton, New Brompton and Gillingham Village had always been isolated bits tacked on around Chatham, but in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century there was a big influx of people from the London area to help build the ironclad battleships in the Dockyard. They all had to be housed, and New Brompton expanded such that the population more than doubled to well over 40,000 by the 1891 census. Chatham Dockyard was where local rivalries were keenest. Most of the Yard was actually within the Brompton/Gillingham boundaries and the three gates more or less served each area. As far as football rivalry was concerned, you could draw a map of the Yard and mark out which area supported which team, and in the weeks before the match things would get quite heated. Regular lunch-time “challenges” took place between the more hot-headed ones – which were basically free-for-all boxing matches not always in accordance with the Queensbury Rules.
“On the day of the match the ritual was always the same. If we were at home, the Chatham mob would storm through the Gillingham Gate at Saturday morning finish, then it would be running skirmishes along Pier Road, up Strand Hill and across the fields. There was usually a lively fight on Gillingham Green. Once someone hurled a stone through the Five Bells window, but my uncle and aunt were pretty pragmatic about it, making sure that everyone cooled off with plenty of beer. If we were playing at Maidstone Road, we’d storm through the Main Gate, and there’d be running skirmishes along Dock Road and through Chatham. Returning after the game was tricky, as to get back to New Brompton you had to run the gauntlet through Jenkins Dale and Lower Luton before you got to the Lines. Even Slogger and Alf got roughed up on one occasion.”
“I’m sure that to modern political do-gooder types all this sounds awful, but in Victorian times this kind of thing was seen as character-forming. Fighting and brawling, especially when fuelled by drink, was common-place, and things like organised games or boxing under the Queensbury Rules were an attempt to channel it. In those days, you were expected to be able to look after yourself. So mix all that together with intense inter-town rivalry, several thousand men, many of them beered-up, and a couple of football teams tearing into each other – well, you won’t get Chopin’s Nocturne will you?”
“Matches with Sheppey United could get a bit fiery too, and that was also down to the rival Dockyard connection. They got promoted into the Southern League First Division the year after we did, and fell out of it in 1900. We never really mastered them, winning 3, losing 3 and drawing 2. The first match we played them, in November 1896, they beat us 2-0 at home, but two seasons later in October 1898 when we won 2-0 with two first half goals from Jack Frettingham, there was a near riot. Sheppey had a pretty clear penalty turned down, fans arguments started getting out-of-hand with Sheppey fans, egged on by some Chatham ones who’d infiltrated, called us “Cheating Colonials”, and a fight started behind the goal which spilled out onto the pitch. It fizzled out almost as quickly as it started, but the FA as usual came down hard on us. We had the ground closed, and had to play our home game with Millwall Athletic in April 1899 at Woolwich Arsenal’s ground in Plumstead. We lost 2-0.”
In an attempt to steer him away from tales of Victorian hooliganism, I asked him about some of the matches with Chatham. “Well our first ever clash as league clubs was at Priestfield on 14th September 1895. There were 6,000 in the ground. We went behind, got into the lead by halftime and it finished 2-2. The return was a 1-1 draw, we had the lead at halftime again, but couldn’t hang on. 5,500 watched that game, and they were pretty much the average crowds for all the games between us. In 1896/97 we drew 3-3 at Maidstone Road, and lost 2-0 at home. That was humiliating. They had a good side that year and finished third. The following season we once again played them at Priestfield in the first match of the season, and beat them 2-1 after being a goal down at half-time. A really satisfying first league win against them, that was. We drew 2-2 in the return. In 1898/99 we drew 1-1 there, and beat them 1-0 at Priestfield and then in the final season we played them, 1899/1900 we drew 1-1 at Priestfield and won 2-1 at Maidstone Road. David Hutcheson in his last season – what a stalwart he was – scored the winner. And that was the last league game we ever played with them.”
I asked him what had happened to them. “Well they’re still going to this day as Chatham Town of course, but it was the same old thing that had dogged us – money, or the lack of it. Keeping a team going in the Southern League was sucking in more and more funds. The league was expanding, so there were more fixtures, more match expenses, more travelling. By 1900 there were 28 games, and the clubs now in included Bristol City, Bristol Rovers, Portsmouth, Spurs, West Ham, Queens Park Rangers, and Watford. Chatham had actually been more successful than us in the five seasons in terms of league position – 1895/96 we were 6th they were 5th, 1896/97 we were 8th they were 3rd, 1897/98 we were 6th they were 4th, 1898/99 exactly the same again, and 1899/1900 we were 11th they were 13th. It almost as though as soon as we beat them at home, and finally got above them in the final table, they packed it in!”
I showed him an article in a magazine about traditional football rivals – Liverpool/Everton, Arsenal/Spurs, Rangers/Celtic, and that Gillingham didn’t have one. “Well, whoever wrote that doesn’t know their history. The rivals in that list are mostly from within the same town or city, so in our case that’s Chatham. We’ve got regular fixtures against them in our early days, and their league position shows that they were in fact a bit better than us. They’re still going, and we played them a few seasons in the 1960’s when they were in the same league as our Reserves. So The Chats are our traditional rivals.
“If you argued on the basis that that your traditional rival was the closest club geographically in the leagues that you’ve played in, and for us that would be the Southern League and Football League, then its Millwall, and we’ve played them on and off since 1895. If you varied that to say that your traditional rival is the club you’ve played in those leagues the longest, then it’s Swindon. But my vote would be Chatham.
“I’ll tell you who it isn’t, and that’s Maidstone. They were an amateur club right up to the 1970’s. There were heaps of clubs in the Southern League – Gravesend, Dartford, Sittingbourne, Margate, Ramsgate and so on – who were bigger than them, and none of those clubs were ever considered our rivals. No, traditional rivalry between New Brompton/Gillingham and Maidstone was all hype from Thompson, backed up by his pals on the Kent Messenger. They’d never figured on our radar.” A grin spread across his face. “And looking at where they are now, I don’t think they ever will either!”